Will Malaysia’s state of emergency cause more political instability?

Malaysia's parliament in session. Photo: DannyG15, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Malaysia’s government declared a state of emergency in January to contain the spread of COVID-19. The decree suspends parliament and postpones any possibility of an election, giving Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s embattled government time to push back against the opposition. However, the move risks further political instability as Muhyiddin may opt not lift the state of emergency as promised.

By Umair Jamal

On January 12, Malaysia’s king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, declared a countrywide state of emergency to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government had requested the decree and has defended the decision by saying that the country’s healthcare system is “at a breaking point” as cases surge. The ruling suspends parliament and gives Muhyiddin’s government the power to pass laws without a parliamentary vote.

However, the declaration also stalls any immediate challenge to Muhyiddin’s government as it postpones any elections until August, when the state of emergency is set to expire. This offers Muhyiddin a level of assurance against political threats and gives him time to prepare for the next election.

The move could also cause more political instability in the country as Muhyiddin may not lift the emergency powers as announced.

Malaysia’s state of emergency is unexpected

This is the first time in 50 years that Malaysia’s government has imposed a state of emergency. Prior governments never saw the need for the additional powers even in the most difficult circumstances.

In a televised address, Muhyiddin said that the state of emergency should not be considered a coup but that it will give the military and other law enforcement agencies extra powers to fight the pandemic.

“The emergency declaration… is not a military coup and a curfew will not be enforced,” he said.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. Photo: U.S. Department of State from United States / Public domain

Muhyiddin’s decision is surprising as Malaysia’s coronavirus situation doesn’t appear bad enough to require the new measures. Last year, Malaysia’s effective response to COVID-19 was hailed as an example for countries with insecure borders, large populations and volatile political situations.

On March 17, Malaysia reported only 1,219 new COVID-19 cases and two more deaths across the country. COVID-19 recoveries have steadily surpassed daily cases for the last 21 days. According to the latest numbers, 154 patients are being treated in Intensive Care Units (ICUs) with around 60 of them requiring respiratory aid.

These figures do not necessarily warrant a state of emergency. Many other countries with far higher numbers of cases are tackling COVID-19 by putting in place systematic social restrictions without calling in the military or shutting down legislative and parliamentary work. The King has said that parliament is allowed to convene during the state of emergency but the government has made clear that parliament will only do so on the recommendation of the cabinet. This indicates that the government is uninterested in convening the parliament irrespective of the pandemic situation.

The ruling also gives the government powers to introduce new laws without securing any support from the opposition or approval from parliament.

Analysts warn Muhyiddin is buying more time to consolidate power

The imposition of the state of emergency will certainly help Muhyiddin stay in power for the time being as he faces threats from the opposition and his own coalition partners. Muhyiddin’s ruling coalition has a weak majority his coalition partners, particularly the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), have threatened to withdraw support and called for fresh elections.

Many have accused Muhyiddin’s government of lacking legitimacy as he was not directly elected by the people. Muhyiddin became prime minister in March 2020 after Mahathir Mohamad suddenly resigned. Anwar Ibrahim, one of Muhyiddin’s key political rivals, announced that he had the support of a majority of parliamentarians to form a new government but his bid for power has not gained momentum.

Bridget Welsh, a research associate at the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute in Malaysia, believes that Muhyiddin’s request for the state of emergency is “more about holding on to power, but the mechanism would not have been possible without the pandemic being there.”

Echoing Welsh’s views, Wong Chin Hua, a political scientist at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia (JCI) at Malaysia’s Sunway University, told Voice of America, “If really you just need to have a bit of extra power, if the current law doesn’t allow you [to], you can always convene the parliament just to pass through all those [powers].”

“This is not a situation where the whole country is in chaos. So the real reason [for] all this is really for him [Muhyiddin] to keep his power, so that the prime minister doesn’t have to face parliament, and to have a free hand to run the country until the emergency is over,” he added.

Others believe that the use of new emergency powers will further undermine the country’s democracy. “If parliament is not in session, the government has the power to make laws. The constitution is more or less suspended, as a substantial part of it can be overridden by emergency law,” said Nik Ahmad Kamal Nik Mahmood, a legal expert associated with the International Islamic University of Malaysia, in an interview with The Guardian.

Mahathir Mohamad. Photo: Tasnim News Agency/Wikimedia Commons

Opposition skeptical of state of emergency, political unrest possible

Opposition leaders and parties have dismissed the emergency declaration and said Muhyiddin’s government has lost the right to govern. Condemning the state of emergency, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad said, “Emergency powers are not necessary for dealing with the pandemic. The government has ample power and Malaysians have obeyed whatever orders or directives were issued by the government in dealing with COVID-19.”

Earlier this month, Ibrahim, leader of the People’s Justice Party, met with UMNO’s leaders to formulate a joint strategy for the next general election. As his political opponents come together, Muhyiddin’s only chance of staying in power is now linked to the emergency decree.

It remains unclear whether Muhyiddin really intends to lift the state of emergency later this year. He may decide to extend it, citing the pandemic, in order to push back against the opposition and gain time. It appears unlikely that Muhyiddin will lift the state of emergency unless he is prepared for the next general election.

However, with deepening political divides and the vote of the Malay majority split among different parties, Muhyiddin is not going to be able to command enough support. Malaysia may enter a new phase of political chaos in which people take to the streets to force the current administration to reverse the emergency decree. Further political divisions and unrest are likely still to come.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15